A Discussion with Chris Untiet, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles

With: Chris Untiet

November 2, 2012

Background: This discussion took place on November 2, 2012 between Chris Untiet, Katherine Marshall, Michael Bodakowski, and Ariel Gleicher via conference call, as part of a joint effort between Habit for Humanity International (HFHI) and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. It is a component of a larger evaluation of the HFHI Interfaith Toolkit Pilot Project—a guide for HFHI affiliates to implement interfaith approaches into organizational strategy and outreach. Tom Jones, ambassador-at-large and senior leadership team member of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) spearheaded the initiative following a 2008 workshop on faith and shelter at Georgetown University. In this interview, Chris Untiet discusses his work managing interfaith action around housing in Los Angeles with Habitat for Humanity. He points to the high cost of housing and land in and around LA as a major challenge to ensuring low cost housing; innovative approaches are thus necessary. Untiet discusses the diverse faith landscape in the LA area, with housing an area of common concern across faiths. Some faith communities have been more difficult to engage than others. He describes a promising start to the interfaith pilot, building on current partner engagement and interest. Untiet foresees that subsequent parts of the toolkit implementation will be on schedule into next year, given current progress.

Please tell us about your role at your Habitat for Humanity chapter. How did you get involved in this area of work?

About three and a half years ago, after finishing graduate school and spending time campaigning for the 2008 general election in Iowa, I decided to join the Americorps National Service Program. I wanted to serve the country in some way, and the program, essentially a domestic version of the Peace Corps, seemed to provide a great way to be involved and support local communities. I loved Iowa, but I wanted to explore options for work in a larger city and experience opportunities in a new and different environment. I applied to work with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles [Habitat GLA] and was offered the chance to serve as faith relations coordinator. I had an incredible two years of service through Americorps and was asked to stay on full-time after my assignment came to an end. It has been an awesome experience to connect LA’s great and diverse faith communities around the cause of providing affordable homes for those in need here in the city.

What does your work involve, both day-to-day and the strategic framework that shapes your activities?

Our faith-based manager position is housed in the development department. It is in many ways a fundraising position that looks to our great churches in the area to provide resources for our projects. Those resources range from financial dollars, to bringing in volunteers to help build homes out on our sites. We have a variety of ways to achieve our goals. One is general outreach, such as making calls, and sending out emails to our different congregations around the city. I also drive around different parts of Los Angeles dropping off packets of information or meeting with faith leaders in the community to provide more information about Habitat and our programs and ways that they can get involved. I enjoy having the opportunity to join congregation gatherings on the weekends and to talk to the full congregation about Habitat as a way to put faith into action.

I also support the grant application process in its different stages and work with other departments in our Habitat chapter. For instance, if the advocacy team is working to get a specific law passed or encourage more action, I will reach out to faith leaders on those issues and encourage them to support the legislative measures.

What is the size of the greater LA Habitat affiliate?

In the Greater LA chapter we have a staff of over 70. The various departments include development, ReStore, entertainment, marketing and communications, construction, homeowner relations, senior leadership, and finance.

What indicators would you use to measure your chapter’s capacity? Is it the budget or something else?

In terms of budget we are one of the largest affiliates in the country. This year our budget is just over $25 to $27 million. It is larger than usual because we received a grant this year through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), which was part of one of the government stimulus packages. This generous grant has been a great opportunity to complete a lot more homes over the past two years.

What is the physical jurisdiction of your chapter?

Our work covers most of LA County. We start out in Malibu, then around the beach cities, including Manhattan and Redondo Beach. We go over to Long Beach to the Orange County line. Hacienda Heights is our northeastern border, then we go around downtown and back up north to Mulholland Drive as our far north border. As you can imagine, it is a very large service area that keeps us very busy. It can be fun to start the day in Long Beach and then end up speaking in Presbyterian churches in Pacific Palisades by the end of the day.

What are the main issues on housing in LA? What are the main obstacles that you as an institution are focusing on as the problem?

Greater LA is one of, if not the most, expensive real estate markets in the country. Land and acquiring affordable land is a big obstacle. In other places land can be given as a donation to help build Habitat homes. Here in LA you really have to work with the city to be able to acquire land. In the past we were able to work with the redevelopment agencies in the city to acquire land at affordable values, but unfortunately those agencies were eliminated. With that void, we are exploring new ways to access land.

The overall cost of building the homes is also very expensive. With all of the necessary permits and the value of homes out here in LA, it is considerably more costly to get all of the resources, whether it is lumber or otherwise. President [Jimmy] Carter was out here for his work project in 2007, and in his speech he said that the main problem was that it cost so much to build anything in the area. Having said that, the resources out here are also incredible. We have a lot of people to reach out to, whether it be corporate partners, faith-based individuals, or others.

It sounds as if the core of your work is the actual construction of houses, is that right?

Typically, yes. In addition to home construction from the ground up we have two other primary models:

  1. Over the last two years we have been excited to take part in the NSP, which is a program that allows us to purchase foreclosed homes. We have purchased about 100 homes in three different cities. What we do is go in and renovate those homes, and bring them up to code. This enables us to serve a lot more homeowners much more quickly. We hope to be able to continue this model even after the NSP ends.
  2. The other thing that we do is support low-income homeowners with basic repair work, including painting, roofing, installing new windows or doors, etc.

How would you describe the religious dimensions of your work? How do people tend to talk about the topic in your office and in your professional relationships?

Faith in action has been the overarching mission of Habitat for a very long time. That framework fit really well with me and the way I grew up. I always loved going to church, but I always asked how we could go out and be God’s hands at work and what we could do to serve actively. I wanted to demonstrate the idea of loving our neighbors as we would want to be loved ourselves, by helping others in need. I see that energy being lived out here in our office on a day-to-day basis. It is evident in every step of the process, from building the homes to encouraging others to get involved. It is a really amazing atmosphere, seeing the idea of faith in action come true.

More specifically, Habitat was founded originally as an ecumenical Christian housing ministry. Our founder had the idea of the “theology of the hammer,” where he acknowledged the differences in denominations but advocated for putting those differences aside to come together around a common understanding that people deserve to have a decent and affordable home. It provides a shared goal that we can all rally around.

We usually say a prayer at the start of a build, and then from there it is really about the work, whether it is building or fundraising. I was just at a house dedication yesterday, which is always such a fun day. We hand over the keys and a Bible to each of our new homeowners and say, “We hope this will be the foundation on which you will base your life.”

Why did you decide to take part in the Interfaith Toolkit Project, and what are you hoping for as a result?

First and foremost, I think interfaith work is really inspiring. Going back to our founders’ theology of the hammer, there are many faith traditions, but there is much hope that can be built up if the traditions can come together to serve a common cause, such as providing homes for people in need. That was a really inspiring reason for me and for our affiliate to get involved.

We have done some interfaith work in the past, but looking at other affiliates and what they have done, we thought there were many more possibilities for us to engage in the interfaith community. With so much diversity and so many different faith traditions in LA, we thought it could be a great new avenue for Habitat to take that will help us accomplish our mission. We wanted to use this year to do something that we have wanted to do for a while, which was to build up a really strong interfaith Habitat community. Then we want to get them out and get right to work on our build sites.

We have a big interfaith build week in partnership with Fighting Poverty with Faith week coming up on November 14 to 17. We have formed our group, and we’re getting right out there.

A third reason to get involved was to help build on our already strong advocacy team in LA. We always wanted to find ways to engage our faith community around our advocacy work. Since that is the third goal of the Interfaith Toolkit, it fit and connected well with something we have always wanted to do.

In your territory what is roughly the demographic breakdown of the faith groups?

I do not have the exact numbers, but LA County is approximately 69 percent Catholic, 6.1 percent mainline Protestant, 10.6 percent evangelical, 10.2 percent Jewish, 1.7 percent Muslim, and 0.1 percent are Baha’i and Unitarian Universalist. We also have 145 Buddhist congregations, 37 Hindu temples, 14 Sikh congregations, and 4 Taoist congregations.

Do the Muslim populations come from any specific country or region?

Thirty percent are African American, 20 percent Arab, and another 20 percent are from Southeast Asia.

And what about the Buddhists?

Habitat has done quite a bit in partnership with Cambodia over the last several years. We have been working to get our interfaith team engaged in Long Beach with the Cambodian population there. We have also recently become involved with the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. We continue to reach out to other Buddhist temples as well.

Is Glendale in your jurisdiction? Is the large Armenian Orthodox Church there involved?

Just two weeks ago the president of Habitat for Humanity Armenia was in LA. Glendale is just outside of our jurisdiction in the San Gabriel Valley Habitat affiliate. We have tried to get more Armenian churches involved, which has been a bit challenging due to some of lack of interest. It has been a challenge to get those churches to move beyond the walls of their congregation. That is not always the case, but tends to be the largest challenge that I’ve seen so far.

Have you worked with the Saddleback Church or with Bishop [Charles E.] Blake?

Saddleback is in the Orange County Habitat’s jurisdiction. We have met a couple of times over the last year with Bishop Blake’s congregation, West Angeles Church of God in Christ, and we are beginning to develop that relationship. We recently completed a great benefit concert with Faithful Central Bible Church with Bishop [Kenneth C.] Ulmer in support of Habitat. There are around 30 megachurches (classified as about 2,500 members or more), and we have partnerships with just about half of them at this point.

How far do you aim to reach in terms of faith communities? Are you trying to reach Rastafarians, Baha’i, Native Americans, Hindus, and Buddhists as well? How do you see the scope?

Absolutely, yes. Any faith tradition is welcome. For our upcoming Interfaith Build Week we have the Baha’i community represented, and we are definitely interested to have them all be involved that week and in other elements of the initiative.

What about atheists?

To my knowledge, that is one group that we have not come in contact with as of yet. They are certainly more than welcome to join and get involved!

What did you do to get started on integrating interfaith into Habitat’s work? Are you working with interfaith groups in LA?

In the past we have had great relationships with church communities, which makes sense given our background as a Christian-inspired organization. Through that, we were able to use some of those churches to get connected with other interfaith groups. We had a contact with ecumenical religious leaders, notably the Archdiocese of LA, which was excited to learn about this initiative. The interreligious director at the archdiocese has a lot of different interfaith contacts, and we were able to use that connection to engage other faith-based groups.

Another group that we worked with is the South Coast Interfaith Council. They have many faith traditions engaged. Since we already had that relationship established it was a great foundation to build on for this project.

Almost every faith tradition has been excited, receptive, and eager to get more information about what we are doing. We have started a task force with representatives from the Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Unitarian, and Hindu faith traditions. It’s so neat to have each of those traditions represented in a room together each month, discussing how we can serve LA more effectively as a cohesive group.

Thus far have there been any tensions between faith groups in the efforts to bring faith to action?

Not yet. That has been one of the most exciting parts of the initiative. They are all positive. I think there is a longing, not for us to give up our different theologies, but rather to realize that we have many common goals. We realize that we can come together and serve those in need.

What is your general plan of action to integrate interfaith in your build efforts?

The general plan has three parts throughout the year:

First, we wanted to form an interfaith community. We spent July, August, and early September getting the word out and getting the task force to come together.

The second phase was to start to put faith into action. In talking with interfaith groups it is clear that they love coming together to talk and learn from one another, but they are ready to do something. We are using this upcoming Interfaith Build Week in November as a starting point to rally people together and get them out on a build site. We want them to see how their work together can transform the life of a homeowner in need. Our hope is that the experience will inspire people to do more. For instance, I know that in Atlanta once a year they do a big interfaith build where they come together to both sponsor and build a home. That would be a dream for us that I know is possible.

Third is the advocacy portion. We want to work with our vice president of advocacy and community partnership groups here at Habitat GLA after the election [November 6]. We will see what makes the most sense to look at next for our advocacy efforts. Both in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C. we hope to use our Interfaith Task Force to help encourage laws and measures that we feel are important to provide affordable housing for those in need.

During the Build Week coming up, will the interfaith group be joining builds that are already planned?

We are in the middle of renovating a number of homes, so we will focus on renovating a house either in Lynwood or South Gate, California. Since these projects are already planned, what we really need are volunteers to come out and help with the work and to help raise funds to complete the project. Each day of the week we will have a faith leader there telling about their faith tradition and how they call on the ideals of that tradition and what inspires them to serve the poor and help those in need.

Will you be recording this?

I think we should. It will be very interesting to hear what people are saying and to be able to hear how the different traditions view the importance of housing.

Does this new interfaith work integrate into what you were doing anyway? Or is this a bit distinct?

Since I started here it had always been my dream to do more interfaith work. From that standpoint it’s been great a great motivation to put the materials together. About two years ago we started looking at the “House of Abraham” as a way to bring the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities together, but this project is even better because it engages all faith groups at once. It fits well with our dreams and goals for the faith community at Habitat of Greater LA and with our construction team’s goals this year.

What will the initiative look like in a practical sense? Will there be builds that only interfaith groups work on?

Typically we have about four build sites where volunteers come out to build in LA, on Wednesday through Saturday of any given week. Starting that week in November we will have one renovation project in Lynwood or South Gate that will be specifically designated as the interfaith build house.

When you have your interfaith build, how do you mobilize the different constituencies that come together? Does each faith representative on the task force reach out to their respective communities?

Generally speaking, we ask each member on the task force to reach out and find three different volunteers to come out for the build day. Beyond that our representative on the task force works with all faith traditions; they have been able to reach out to their own faith community and others as well. I also send out fliers and information to faith communities across the city, and we stop by temples, mosques, or churches to get the word out. Whatever it takes.

What is the focus of your chapter’s advocacy work?

First, from the government side there are laws or measures that need to be worked on, either in Sacramento or Washington. It is one thing to have the Habitat staff out working for the cause, but it means more to have an interfaith community involved that shows up and helps support the measure. We can all make the case that affordable housing should be at the top of the agenda, and it is powerful to have another group of people who can articulate that message as well.

Second, whether with community groups, businesses, or schools, it is critical to have ambassadors for Habitat out there who can go to events and do presentations, advocating for the changes that we need to see to get people out of garages and one-bedroom houses where they are raising two kids.

At this early stage of the project, what has been the role of the interfaith toolkit provided to you?

It has been a great help and inspiration. When we were first looking to apply for the initiative we examined it, and it seemed to be right on track with how an interfaith initiative should be implemented. Even in our application we laid out how we would be able to implement this toolkit and focus on each of the three main areas: recruitment, faith in action, and advocacy.

Looking at the message of the HFHI president, he really clarified from the outset why Habitat wanted to get involved and why it is so important for diverse faiths to come together and understand each other better, and be able to help people in all parts of the world. It is great to get an initiative going here in the United States first, and then to use that abroad. There are examples already. A couple of churches crossed the Atlantic in the 1990s to northern Ireland to help with the peace processes there by helping to build homes for people in need among both Catholic and Protestant traditions.

Seeing those examples shows what can be done across the world. Those types of partnerships are demonstrated in the toolkit so that we can start to do similar projects right here in LA. That’s an exciting opportunity.

Do you find that the dates and benchmarks in the toolkit are helpful guidance, or is it difficult to conform to the specific deadlines?

The dates in our affiliate have worked well. For instance, we wanted to have the interfaith group formed by the end of September, which we were able to do. By the end of November we hope to have the faith in action portion completed or organized and that is working out well. Finally, the advocacy should be completed either March or April, and we should be right on track for that. I know that for some other groups they set their interfaith build for the beginning of next year, so the deadlines have not quite worked out. I have also found that it can be difficult within faith communities to get things organized and moving forward within the structure of the organization, which can make things difficult in some cases.

Is the Interfaith Youth Corps active in LA? Do you work with them?

I believe some connection has been made, but it hasn’t been much yet. I will definitely look into this because we have about 100 different schools and youth groups across the city already involved, and this would be another great way to get them involved.

Is Claremont in your jurisdiction? They have an interesting interfaith program.

A couple of pastors have mentioned that they would love to get Claremont involved. On one hand I think it is smart that we divide up our service territories because there is so much to do and so many resources. On the other hand sometimes there are partnerships like Claremont that it would be nice to be able to work with on projects like this.

If you were asked now how should someone evaluate whether you’ve been successful come July, what would be a reasonable way to measure and make that judgment?

When we first met back in June with the interfaith team from each of the six selected affiliates, we came up with a list of things that we are going to look at again at the end of the year. From our standpoint, the question is whether we were able to form and expand our interfaith outreach through our task force and create a long-term interfaith community.

Second, were we able to actually complete a build, and will that project allow us to complete more interfaith projects in the long-term?

Third, are we now able to use our interfaith group as a way to expand our advocacy efforts in the two areas I mentioned earlier? Is our group confident to go out and advocate both to the government and in community organizations, such as businesses or schools?

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